(in)complete streets

Note: This is a follow-on to streets – stroads – roads. It will make more sense if you read that one first.

The complete streets concept says that all modes of travel (walking, bicycling, motor vehicles, and transit when appropriate) should be accommodated on streets. The accommodation is accomplished by providing separate spaces for each: sidewalks for people walking, bike lanes for people bicycling, general purpose lanes for people driving.

The concept was and is promoted by the National Complete Street Coalition, now part of Smart Growth America, since 2004. The traffic planning and engineering professions strongly resisted the concept for years, but it now receives at least voice support from most planners and engineers. In California, chances of getting a transportation infrastructure grant are low if it does not at least claim to meet complete streets concepts.

The two biggest weaknesses of the complete streets concept are:

  • No guidelines for the frequency of safe crossings are built into the complete streets concept. It could be, but it is not. So travel along corridors is better, but crossing that corridor may not be any better than it was before.
  • Speed limits are rarely reduced on a reconstructed complete streets. Traffic lanes are often narrowed, and sometimes reduced, in an effort to slow traffic. However, a design that actually enforces a lower speed, and therefore allows a lower speed limit is rarely considered.

FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) recent released a Complete Streets Report to Congress and related webpage. I have not had a chance to look at this in detail, so I don’t know if the federal concept overcomes the weaknesses of the previous complete streets concept. The graphic below was the leading one in the new effort, and was justifiably criticised as presenting an unattractive if sort-of compliant complete street, but some people who have read the document say it is better than this. Streetsblog USA: USDOT Tackles Overlooked Barriers to ‘Complete Streets’ — And Sparks Debate.

FHWA complete streets graphic

Caltrans has a recently adopted Complete Streets Policy. The City of Sacramento has a complete streets policy. Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Folsom, Rancho Cordova, and the county express support for complete streets concepts in their general plans, and have complete streets projects, but apparently do not have specific policies.

There have been a number of complete streets project already in the Sacramento region, and more are on the way. The proposed Measure 2022 transportation sales tax flags complete streets for much of investment, so it is important to understand what a complete street is and is not. Let me say that a complete street is almost always better than what was there before. A lot of our streets were constructed without sidewalks, or with narrow sidewalks interrupted with utility poles and other obstructions, and lacking curb ramps. Complete streets usually have continuous sidewalks of six feet or more, with fewer (but not no) obstructions, and curb ramps at corners. Almost all of our streets were constructed without any place for bicyclists, so a complete street with bike lanes may be an improvement (though many traffic engineers continue to think that painted bike lanes work on higher speed streets).

I was working partly in the City of Citrus Heights when the Auburn Blvd Complete Streets Phase 1 project was designed and implemented. Indeed, travel along the corridor was much improved, and the road was more welcoming to all modes of travel. But there were no more safe crossings of Auburn Blvd than there were before. The crosswalks were still way to far apart for people to conveniently access the businesses, homes, and schools along the corridor. The speed limit was unchanged, though my perception was that actual speeds were a bit slower.

Nearly all streets that have become, or are proposed to become, complete streets are stroads. Think of a major roadway in the county, and you are picturing a stroad. Making a stroad a complete street does not make it not a stroad. Complete streets projects often forget to answer the most basic questions: what is the purpose of this roadway, and how can we construct it so that it fulfills that purpose? A stroad with sidewalks and bike lanes is still a stroad if the primary function is to move people along the corridor, rather than allow them to be in the corridor.

If the purpose of a roadway is to move a high volume of motor vehicles quickly, a road, then sidewalks and bike lanes probably aren’t appropriate, and those modes should be provided for on parallel routes. If the purpose of a roadway is to provide a place for people and building wealth, a street, then sidewalks and SLOW or no motor vehicle traffic is the only appropriate design. This is often expressed as a place where ‘cars are guests’ and bicyclists mix in with other street users rather than needing an exclusive space.

Yes, I am talking about an ideal here. Almost all of our roadways were designed and function inappropriately. We have a long ways to go, but we at least have to get started by stopping what we are doing wrong, and starting to do it right. The proposed Measure 2022 transportation sales tax largely commits to continue doing it wrong, for 40 years. That is the next post.

Yes, and lower speed limits

I believe that stroads should be turned back into Streets, and roads preserved for their transportation function. I’m a Strong Towns member, and fully support the argument that the best solution to stroads is to reconstruct them into streets. #SlowTheCars is the right approach. Key to that approach is that changing speed limits doesn’t do much to slow cars, and that ticketing people for going the design speed instead of the posted speed is often just a pretext for profiling and oppression.

BUT. It will be a long while and trillions of dollars to accomplish that. Undoing the damage of the past is not easy, because the money it would take to fix everything has long since gone into the pockets of those who profited from unsustainable (socially, economically, environmentally) development. We will have to triage, changing the most dangerous places first, and those places with the best chance of becoming walkable, livable, and vibrant second. We may never, and perhaps should never, get to those places that are the model of the suburban experiment. Many suburban places will fail and go back to agriculture. Others will not. But spending a lot of money to fix a suburban stroad, adding sidewalks and bike lanes and street furniture, will be good money after bad because these places won’t ever be dense enough or successful enough to pay back the investment.

Back to speed. It will be a long while before we can lower the design speed of stroads and streets back to the correct speed. In most cases, that design speed should be 20 mph. Occasionally higher or lower, but mostly 20. In the interim, I think that we should reduce the speed of all urban streets, that are not arterials and collectors, to 20 mph. I am not suggested that this limit be tightly enforced, as the point is not enforcement but education and commitment. A community willing to lower the speed limit to 20 is a community willing to think about safety and livability, and to accept that the way we have done thing in the past is absolutely not what we need in the present or future. Setting speed limits to 20 is a message to pay attention and think about consequences. Portland and Seattle have recently reduced some speed limits to 20.

Continue reading “Yes, and lower speed limits”